handgun calibers

6 Great But Overlooked Handgun Calibers

The dominant handgun calibers are excellent, but they're also fairly old. The newest caliber that's achieved much in the way of popularity is .40 S&W, and even that one seems to be on the way out to some degree.

There are some other great handgun calibers out there that just haven't gotten the same traction, which is kind of unfortunate. There are some great rounds that just don't get the same love as .45 ACP or 9x19mm that merit looking into.

The .38 Super: The Original Plus P Round

.38 Super bullet

In 1929, Colt released a new 1911 called the "Super .38," and a hot .38 round to go with it which is now called the .38 Super, though it wasn't initially. It took a few years for the ".38 Super" tag to get applied (mostly because the pistol was called the Super .38) but initially, the round was actually .38 Automatic Colt Pistol or .38 ACP.

The Colt M1900 (a precursor to the 1911) was developed with the .38 ACP in mind but early loadings proved too hot for the gun to handle, so the round was loaded down. Production cartridges pushed a 115-grain bullet at about 1,150 feet per second, so slightly slower than 9x19mm but with a longer, semi-rimmed case. In the 1920s, Colt decided to liven the .38 ACP up and stuffed a bit more powder in the case and created the .38 Super, which pushed the same 115-gr cartridge at about 1,400 fps, decades before the first 9mm Plus P was created.

When released, it started to become very popular with police as it was capable of penetrating car bodies and the body armor of the day. In that era, police needed every firepower advantage they could get.

Why hasn't this round become more popular? Well, there are a number of reasons. First, it was overshadowed by the .357 Magnum, which was released a few years later and won over more civilians and police officers since revolvers were still the dominant handgun design. Secondly, the 9mm doesn't require a special feed ramp to accommodate a semi-rimmed case and more companies were making it by then anyway.

Today, the .38 Super is still available and some people swear by it. It's a very popular round for competitive shooting as it offers a powerful round with less recoil than larger calibers. However, only a few major manufacturers offer guns chambered in it, and only one - the EAA Witness - is not a 1911, which some people don't prefer due to communism.

The .41 Magnum: Arguably The Perfect Manstopper

.41 magnum bullet

The .41 Magnum, or rather the .41 Remington Magnum, should have been so much more popular than it is. Some people think it's a tragedy that it never caught on, because it's a "Goldilocks" magnum.

In the early 1960s, some of the nation's top gun guys - including Bill Jordan, Elmer Keith, Skeeter Skelton and a few others - recognized that the .44 Magnum was overkill for police work and defensive purposes, but that the .357 Magnum was a little underpowered in some loadings. They went around bugging the gun industry for a round that was in between, settling on a .41 caliber bullet (inspired by the .41 Long Colt) and with the idea to have light loads for police work and high-power loads for outdoor and sporting purposes.

Remington came up with the cartridge and Smith and Wesson adapted their N-frame to the new cartridge, creating the Model 57 - the premium, gussied up model - and the Model 58, which was a little barer-boned and intended as a police sidearm.

It should have been perfect, but it all went haywire. Many police departments, used to .38 Special, felt even the moderate .41 Magnum loads were too powerful and the 41-ounce weight of the "lighter" Model 58 was just too much gun to tote around, compared to K-frame Smiths and Colt Pythons which were a little more compact.

It's a shame. The .41 Magnum is capable of incredible diversity, including lighter subsonic loads all the way up to full-house loads that push a 265-gr cartridge at 1,350 fps. As a result, the cartridge is good for defensive purposes and is also a very capable hunting handgun (many handgun hunters swear by the .41 to this day) and as a backup in bear country.

There are a few .41 Mags still in production - Ruger and S&W both make a model or two - but the round just didn't catch on like it should have.

The 10mm Auto

10 mm bullet

The 10mm auto round is, much like the .41 Magnum, actually a very capable round in terms of available loadings. Softer loadings can be shot by many shooters and the full-house loads are one of the few semi-auto rounds that suited to use as a handgun hunting round.

Initially, the 10mm was developed as a round that bridged the gap between easy-recoiling but high-velocity 9mm and the hard-hitting but slower .45 In short, a medium round that could really book it - and it does.

The FBI picked up on the 10mm's potential and briefly made it standard issue until they figured out that not all shooters could handle even the lower-power FBI load and also that the S&W 1076 pistols broke down a lot. They then adopted the .40 S&W round.

Without the endorsement of a major law enforcement agency, public interest waned and the 10mm was relegated to being a niche round.

It's kind of too bad. Just like the .41 Magnum, soft-shooting subsonic rounds (basically a .40 with a longer case) are available as are screaming full-power loads, as some 10mm loads are capable of pushing a 155-gr. bullet at 1,400 feet per second with more than 650 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. Bullet sizes range from 135 grains to 200, meaning the round is capable of slinging some serious lead. It's one of the few auto cartridges that rivals the .357 Magnum for power, and in some cases exceeds it.

It does have it's fans, and there are a number of very vocal 10mm supporters out there. Additionally, this cartridge has a decent number of pistols still being chambered in 10mm from major manufacturers. However, it just doesn't have the traction of it's compact, lower-powered offspring - the .40 S&W - and isn't likely to grow much at this point, as the 9mm rules the roost as the dominant defensive and service caliber.

Are you looking for concealed carry ammo, here is what to look for what to look for in concealed carry ammo.

9x23mm Winchester

winchester calibers

The 9x23mm Winchester is a relative newcomer, having been developed and initially released in the 1990s for use in competitive shooting. It was patented by John Ricco of CP bullets in 1992, and Winchester agreed to start producing it thus leading the round to be dubbed 9x23mm Winchester or 9mm Winchester.

The round was developed so competitive shooters could run a smaller round than .45 ACP in the Major Power Factor class of handguns in IPSC matches...and boy, does it.

So, what's the deal with this round? Well, it's a rimless .38 Super (dimensionally it's the same size and it was developed from the .38 Super) and just like the parent cartridge, is hotter than Plain Jane 9mm, even the 9mm +P loadings. In fact, the 9mm Winchester can outperform the .357 Sig in terms of velocity and muzzle energy but with more rounds fitting in a magazine since the case diameter is smaller (.357 Sig case diameter is about the same as 10mm and .40 S&W; 9x23mm is roughly equal to 9mm Para) meaning more bullets that hit REAL hard.

In other words, it's a slightly bigger 9mm that's hotter than 9mm +P; muzzle velocities for a 124-gr bullet exceed 1400 fps and 500 ft-lbs of energy. That's practically a .357 Magnum load. What's not to like?

Case length, actually. The 9x23mm all but requires the 1911 platform and it's easier for manufacturers to design pistols for the 9mm round, so no one really ever started making guns in this chambering on any scale, which is a shame.

From Russia With BOOM! The 7.65x25mm Tokarev


There aren't too many things communists make well, but two exceptions are Cuban cigars and the 7.62x25mm Tokarev. The round was developed by slightly modifying the 7.62x25mm Mauser round (ballistics are similar) and then the TT-33 pistol was created so the Russians had something to shoot it with.

And it is a screamer.

The 7.62 Tokarev round is capable of muzzle velocities between 1200 and 1800 feet per second and upward of 500 ft-lbs of energy with a (roughly) .32 caliber bullet. This gives it performance roughly on par with the .357 Magnum in an autoloading round and with a lot less recoil.

The round punches through targets like a hot knife through butter, including through a good amount of kevlar body armor. In fact, some loadings are illegal to import as they are classified as armor-piercing rounds by the feds.

Why didn't this round catch on? For starters, it's a necked-down case, which has never been too popular with handgun makers. The Soviet military also switched to the Makarov pistol in the 1960s though it remained in use for submachine guns. Much of the public is barely aware of it.

A good number of surplus pistols are out there chambered in this cartridge, and a few ammunition companies produce rounds for it, so there is a following. That said, it's sort of too bad that it didn't find more adopters.

.327 Federal Magnum - King Of The Compact Magnums

federal magnum calibers

There used to actually be more .32 caliber pistols on the market, both in .32 ACP for autos and .32 caliber rounds for snub revolvers - the undisputed king of the latter is the .327 Federal Magnum. .327 Federal is actually a very modern round, as it only came out about a decade ago.

The .327 Federal Magnum was developed with the goal of duplicating .357 Magnum performance in a smaller round, with the end goal being a compact magnum revolver without the compromises built into compact .357 Magnums and lighter recoil.

And it worked. Muzzle velocities upward of 1,500 fps and muzzle energy upward of 600 ft-lbs are common, so it certainly packs the punch of a larger round. A snubbie in .327 Federal can carry six where a .38 Special/.357 can only carry five. With a longer barrel, the round becomes a powerhouse, packing just as much wallop while being softer on the shooter as some shooters are quite sensitive to recoil.

The round won a lot of fans but only a few early adopters; today only Ruger and Freedom Arms still make guns chambered for this round.

Sam Hoober  

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

purchase gun belt